Bobsleigh: Minichiello has gold in her sights

British hope aims to add Olympic to world medal after recovering from eye surgery
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The Independent Online

Uncharted waters lie ahead. Tonight on the fearsome Whistler track, Nicola Minichiello and Gillian Cooke will begin their attempt to follow in the sled tracks of Amy Williams and win an unprecedented second gold for Great Britain.

Williams' triumph early on Saturday morning was Britain's ninth Winter gold, the previous eight having been spread over eight different Olympics. If Minichiello and Cooke finish their two-day competition in the women's bobsleigh overnight tomorrow at the head of the field it will complete Britain's best Winter Games.

As the reigning world champions their credentials are plain to see, but since that success last February they have endured a loss of form and, more alarmingly, Minichiello had to undergo surgery after losing 80 per cent of the sight in her left eye. It was, said Minichiello, "scary".

The 31-year-old only had her final operation last month and still has less than perfect vision. But, as Minichiello puts it, when it comes to flying down Whistler "by the bottom three corners you are going so fast you really can't see an awful lot anyway".

In training yesterday Paula Walker's second British sled tipped over midway through their run and Walker and Kelly Thomas, her brakewoman, were fortunate to walk away without a scratch. At the weekend the British men's bob overturned with both men, John Jackson and Dan Money, also somehow avoiding serious injury. Since the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger, the course has been tinkered with but it remains a daunting prospect.

"This is a fantastic track," Minichiello said. "I've been here a couple of times and it really is an exciting experience to compete here. It really is the ultimate sliding track – so challenging in every way. It's the sort of place that you really do want to come to."

Their practice runs have been mixed but, significantly, improving and they finished as fifth-fastest. "We're ironing out the mistakes and that's what training is for," Minichiello said. "It's finding the rhythm and heartbeat of the track."

Britain's No 1 pairing have a record of peaking when most needed, and least expected. They had only been together a matter of months when they arrived in Lake Placid – a course considered similar, if less hair-raising, to its North American cousin – for the World Championships, and were in no sort of form either. Days later they became the first Britons to win a world crown for 44 years.

The achievement was all the more admirable given that Cooke was a novice at the sport. A former long jumper who competed in the Commonwealth Games for Scotland, she was contacted by Minichiello, at the end of an exhaustive search for athletes who fitted the bill as potential brakewoman, through her Facebook page.

On and off the track, it has been some ride since for Cooke, who lives in Edinburgh when not on the World Cup circuit. During the build-up to the Games she became a YouTube hit after her suit split as she bent over at the start of a race. Then on Valentine's Day a Scottish newspaper listed her as one of the country's 10 most eligible women.

The Canadian and German sleds have set the pace in practice and with the huge, and controversial, advantage of time on the track, the Canadians are favourites. But Minichiello is nothing if not absolutely sure of herself.

"This season has been all about the Olympics," she said, "and we're in the shape of our lives."